Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse
Rebuilding Our Boundaries And Dating Confidently after Child Sexual Abuse
Published in “Multiple Parts” May 2012
The Magazine from PODS: Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors
“Are you sure it’s over… ?” I desperately pleaded, with tears streaming down my face. “Are you sure this is what you want …?” I continued as my soon to be ex-boyfriend closed the door behind him. I slumped on the stairs and tried to label my overriding feeling. Powerlessness.
I now had no control over the situation and I knew it. As a long-term victim of sexual abuse, it was not a feeling that was unfamiliar to me – and neither, incidentally, was the abrupt end to a romance.
To experience sexual abuse as a child, as I did, is to experience an act or indeed many acts of powerlessness. This can have a devastating impact on relationships that continues into adulthood, and it often manifests itself in two extremes – being controlling, or remaining a victim.
These experiences of powerlessness may lead to an extreme fear of being vulnerable, or feeling controlled in any way, and this in turn can result in a counteractive pattern of controlling behaviours. Or conversely, the helplessness of the situation may result in not being able to take charge of life in an adult way: abuse survivors can be revictimised either sexually, emotionally or physically, or even in all three ways. Much of this occurs because of poor boundaries, and perhaps nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the arena of dating and relationships.
The lack of and indeed abuse of boundaries can mean that some people victimised as children go on to be revictimised in adult life with their partners. In relationships they accept treatment that healthier people would not tolerate. Not being sufficiently protective of themselves through strong boundaries can leave them open to further abuse. This could manifest as remaining child-like rather than taking an adult role in relationships, being attracted to controlling people and repeating abusive/destructive patterns of relating, not being able to make decisions, and living chaotically.
(Source: Adapted from ideas “The Wounded Heart”: Dan Allender: Nav Press : Published 1990 Pages 97-110)
Grabbing The Control
Wanting to have control in life can be very empowering and healthy for survivors of sexual abuse and is a natural consequence of having been so powerless in childhood. However when it is the predominant drive in a friendship or partnership it can become harmful. Controlling people are often the most hurting people in our community, but because they are so hard to engage with, they often end up the loneliest.
Some ways control expresses itself is through:
- Being emotionally cold – never letting go in a relationship and holding back emotionally in an unhealthy way
- Very rigid decision-making and not taking on board another person’s choices
- Inability to hear or see others’ point of view
- Co-dependency – getting drawn into relationships where both parties need each other in an unhealthy way
- Assuming a parental role in a relationship instead of being equal as adult-to-adult
- Being driven by compulsions and addictions which interfere with relationships, for example food, drugs, alcohol, fantasy and obsessions, workaholism, and perfectionism
Through my work over the last eighteen years, I have heard many sad stories of abuse survivors either becoming isolated due to the tight control that grips their lives and relationships, or alternatively being revictimised by not asserting themselves enough. This is especially the case in the arena of dating and relationships and I can certainly relate to both positions.
But is it possible to rebuild such a shattered foundation? When we have been so violated and disempowered, is it possible to regain our sense of self so that we can be close to others whilst retaining our own choices and independence? Yes we can, but if we want to have healthier relationships and to be able to date confidently, we need to carefully examine our boundaries.
Boundaries And Powerlessness
Everyone needs boundaries – they exist to allow the good in and to keep the bad out. When a young person or child is abused, it often leads to them as adults being unable to set appropriate boundaries in their lives. So, if we all need them then what is a healthy boundary?
Healthy boundaries mean that you can be intimate and close and yet not lose a sense of yourself. This means that you can be attached and yet separate – a person in your own right. In relationships with bad boundaries you may give up your feelings, ideas and opinions, but in emotionally healthy relationships you can be close to someone and yet disagree without any harm to the relationship. In some ways boundaries can be the ultimate test of a relationship. If you can’t say “No” and “I don’t agree” without an eruption then something needs to change. This is especially true in the early stages of a dating relationship.
Bad boundaries in dating come in different forms:
People who can’t say no: These are people who can’t say no to their partner for fear that setting a boundary and expressing their desires will cause tension or conflict in the relationship or mean the end of the relationship altogether. In a dating scenario this could mean never choosing the film you want to watch, or at a more serious level going along with phpects of the sexual side with which you are not happy.
People who can’t hear no: These are people who find it difficult to take responsibility for their own lives and manipulate others into doing what they want. You will know that you are dating a partner who can’t hear no if you find that your own life and choices always come second to your date’s. You may also find that when you do try and express your own desires, they are dismissed very quickly – often with pressure and anger.
People who can’t say yes: These people are often disconnected from others. So even when friends or partners reach out to them and try and connect with them deeply on a personal level, they don’t fully engage. They therefore remain in control but are isolated and lonely. If you’re dating a person who can’t hear yes, you will probably feel lonely too because your date is not able to really emotionally engage with you.
People who can’t hear yes: In a relationship, we should be able to seek support from our partner. If you have a healthy need from your partner and they act in a dismissive way towards it, it may be that you are with someone who cannot say yes to genuine engagement. This means that they often can’t give closeness, care and intimacy.
However, learning to change boundaries especially in the dating field is tricky as they may have been deeply entrenched for years. The first step, however, is trying to recognise where your boundaries are today. . (Source: Based on ideas in “Boundaries”: Henry Cloud and John Townsend: Zondervan Publishing House: Published 1992)
Check out your Boundaries
If you think that your boundaries may need some work, take a look at the questions below and see if any of these have applied to you in recent weeks:
- Do you have difficulty saying “no”?
- Are there some people you always give into ?
- When you are out with friends or a partner, who makes the choices about where you go and what you do?
- What happens if you disagree with
- Your parents?
- Your partner?
- Your best friends?
- How do you feel if they don’t agree with you?
- Are you happy to go along with their choices?
- Who are the hardest people to erect boundaries with?
- Are there people in your life who love your “no” as well as your “yes”?
- Can you hear a “no” or does that throw you?
It’s very important to look at how we set boundaries when we first meet a potential partner. How we start a relationship is likely to determine how it progresses, so it’s important to think carefully about this and set healthy limits right from the word go. Boundaries are there to keep us safe and survivors of abuse can find it hard to keep themselves safe as it hasn’t been modelled to them. We need to establish safe boundaries from the very first contact we have with other people.
When you are first dating, it can be very exciting! But safety must be paramount when meeting someone face-to-face for the first few times. This is especially important if you have met your date online. You want to be able to relax on a date, so you need to feel safe and in control and establishing good boundaries is a way of achieving that. Here are some things you might want to consider:
Meet in a public place. For a first meeting, always meet in a public place where other people are nearby – also consider meeting with a group of people or double date. Avoid secluded or quiet areas on your first date – just to make sure.
Let a friend know where you’re going. Make sure that someone knows where you are going and who you’ll be with – ask a friend to give you a call on your mobile during the evening to check that things are going well. You could also arrange to meet a friend later that evening.
Consider going on a pre-date date. This isn’t a ‘full-blown’ date and as such it can reduce the pressure as it’s just meeting for a coffee for 20-30 minutes or something similar. A quick pre-date gives you both an idea of what the other person is like, and takes the stress out of the possibility of spending a whole evening with someone you may have little in common with. If it goes well then you can move onto a proper date.
Use your own transport. Don’t allow your date to pick you up from home on your first meeting – get there on your own and make sure you know the time of the last train or bus or you have enough petrol in the car. Don’t take any chances and rely on your date to get you back home. Don’t let them know where you live to start with – once they have that information, you can’t get it back. Be cautious.
Go Dutch. Pay half the bill! Unfortunately some people want something in return if they pay for you. On the first few dates, pay half so that you don’t feel any obligation or pressure. When first dating, it is important you retain your independence and power.
Don’t get drunk. The biggest threat to a person’s judgment is alcohol – it lessens your inhibitions and can leave you vulnerable. Stick to one drink on the first date or better still avoid it altogether. Always keep your glass in sight.
Give out your mobile number only. Don’t give out your home number to a new date as you can easily find someone’s address by their home phone number. Also don’t call your date from your home phone number as they can trace you. Stick to mobiles until you settle into the relationship.
Trust Your Instincts. If you haven’t met your date before and something does not feel right, don’t hang around. This is especially true if you meet someone online from a dating site and they look and present very differently to how they described themselves. Your instincts are there for a reason.
Don’t Let Down Your Guard. Even if the evening is going really well and there’s spark and chemistry, remain alert and make sure you always have your phone to hand. Have fun with your date, but stay safe as this is crucial to your enjoyment.
(Source: Based on ideas in “On line Dating Magazine” www.onlinedatingmagazine.com)
Listen To Your Friends
Two good tests of a relationships are to ask and receive input from your friends and also to take time in the relationship and not be tempted to “rush” it to the next stage. Don’t even attempt to start dating when you have no friends around you, for example if you have just moved into a new town or started a course at a new college. Always date when you are in a community and have established some of your own personal life and contacts. Dating without a support system leaves you extremely vulnerable.
Once you have started a relationship it is always wise to introduce your new partner to your friends. Then get some feedback from them:
- Be open to everything your friends have to say even if you don’t like it
- Keep in close touch with all your friends when you are dating
- Don’t be swept out of your own life, hobbies and interests by your new date
- If you don’t want to introduce your date to your friends, ask yourself why.
Going out in a group of friends before you make any commitments is a good plan as there is less pressure and it is good to see if you can fit into each other’s lives. Also, you need to meet his or her friends – if he or she doesn’t have any then that is not a good sign as they could become very dependent on you. There will inevitably be some differences and you won’t like all of each other’s friends, but if you are close to your friends and your new date doesn’t like them – or they have reservations about him – that is both a red flag and also a potential future area of conflict. You need to think carefully before proceeding further. Stay in touch with your friends throughout the dating process and beyond.
Give Your Relationship Time
When you meet someone new, it can be really tempting to make this the focus of your life and put the rest of your life on hold so that you can spend all your time and energy with your new boyfriend or girlfriend. However, a relationship should be like a deck of cards – you give out one at a time, not the whole pack at once. For example, in the first few weeks of dating someone, it is inappropriate to tell them all your problems, to expect them to be there for you in the middle of the night, or to lend you money. It is also rushing the relationship to start talking about marriage or moving in during the first few dates.
Time is one element you cannot cheat in a relationship. But often in our insecurity and excitement we may wish to rush ahead to the next stage when we haven’t really built a strong enough foundation. By taking things a step at a time we can give ourselves space to think and act in a healthy way. (Source: These ideas around dating and relationships and many more can be found in “New Shoes”: Rebecca Mitchell: Published by Lion Hudson 2011)
Knowing How Much To Say
One major question for survivors, especially those who have the added complication of a dissociative disorder, is how much you should tell your date about your history and your difficulties. There is no easy answer to this, but beware of splurging everything out about yourself to a relative stranger. Of course you want to know that they will not reject you because of your difficulties, but you also need to hold your own boundaries of privacy and be careful about how much you disclose. You should never treat them as a therapist and it is a good idea to take things slowly. Many survivors feel that they are lying or being deceptive if they don’t ‘confess’ their abuse histories but that’s not a helpful way of looking at it. The reality is that you have nothing to be ashamed of and don’t need to justify yourself to anyone else. It is a difficult balance to strike between holding back wisely and hiding in shame but it can be helpful to just ask yourself the question of why you feel the need to tell someone this phpect of your life at this point in the relationship.
In the case of Dissociative Identity Disorder, there is of course the added complication of different parts of the personality or alters and their feelings, views, fears and hopes. Everybody will be unique in the way they go about dating, but the important principle to hold onto is a strong sense of your own boundaries. Knowing that you have a right to be safe, that you have a right to be respected, and that others also have a right to be different to you, can help enormously in navigating the extremely complicated phpect of romantic relationships with both a history of abuse and a dissociative disorder. If you feel that you cannot maintain your own sense of safety and separateness from the other person, that should be a red flag over the relationship and needs thinking about, probably with the help of friends and maybe even a therapist.
Sexual boundaries can also become very confused and while people will have different levels of what they are comfortable with, everyone should feel safe and comfortable in a physical relationship. We should expect to be able to say “yes” and “no” without pressure, feeling victimised or that we ‘have to’. It can be very difficult, but it’s absolutely essential that you regain your sense of a boundary around your body and only allow it to be touched in a way that is positive and respectful.
Rebuilding Our Boundaries
Learning to rebuild our boundaries can take a lifetime but it is worth the time, effort and energy because it is the route to a fulfilling life with healthy relationships. It is the way out of the powerlessness and victimisation we have had to suffer in the past. To do this we may need to learn new ways of relating and behaving and this is not an easy process. We often need to recognise that we have rights in relationships, and that others also have rights in their relationship with us.
However, working towards healthy boundaries leads to healthy, happy relationships. We can disagree with our partner or friend without harming the relationship. We can retain all our own feelings, ideas and opinions and not be threatened by or have to give them up for anyone else. We can be attached and yet separate. We can be re-empowered but not controlling and we can be vulnerable but not victims.
No relationship is easy – having been powerless through someone invading your boundaries in abuse, it can be doubly difficult to remain open to others. With work and support, however, it is possible: we can re-write our lives so that we can enjoy being intimate and close but also not lose a sense of ourselves. We can have strong boundaries but also be open enough to others to be able to give and receive love – even romantic love.
We can have a good romance.